Power: Those who have it want more
Published March 2, 2023
By Tom Campbell
It’s an axiom as old as history. Those who have no power, want it; those who have power want more. North Carolina is proof of the truism.
Our earliest constitution established the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government. Weary of the British Monarchy’s absolute power, the framers wanted to establish a separation of powers, however they granted more power to the legislative than other branches.
But legislators want more. Since taking control of our General Assembly in 2012, Republican leadership has attempted to diminish the power of the Governor and has also challenged our courts’ authority.
Lawmakers were irritated when our state Supreme Court ruled that their 2022 redistricting efforts were racially and otherwise unconstitutional, ordering new districts be drawn. Employing the Independent State Legislative Theory, they initiated a lawsuit that postulated the General Assembly had sole and final authority to draw voting districts and that no state court could countermand those districts. Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the case and the entire country is watching Moore v. Harper. Regardless of the outcome there will be reverberations.
Even though the legislature has total authority to name all members to the UNC Board of Governors they want to take power from the governor, who currently names virtually all the members of the State Board of Education. Legislators know they will never be able to give themselves this prerogative without a major revolt, so they have introduced legislation in this session that would remove the Governor’s power to appoint and have the members elected by the voters instead.
To their credit lawmakers recognize that we have a governance problem with public education, however their solution doesn’t fix it. Generally, persons appointed to the State Board of Education have some connection to or experience in education, but under this new bill anyone could run. And if this is such a good idea, why not allow voters to elect the UNC Board of Governors? That might be a decent tradeoff, given the recent performance from that board.
The more time lawmakers spend in the General Assembly the more they believe their ideas are sacrosanct and should go unchallenged. In 1996, North Carolina became the last state to give the Governor veto power. Since Roy Cooper became Governor in 2017, he has used the veto stamp more than all our other governors combined. For his first two years, most of Cooper’s vetoes were overturned because Republicans outnumbered Democrats, but in 2019 voters elected veto-proof majorities in both houses and since then, none have been overridden. In the 2022 election, however the Senate once again gained a veto-proof majority, and the House is one vote short. House Speaker Moore, a wily practitioner, pulled out his dog-eared copy of the NC Constitution and read where vetoes can be overridden by a three-fifths vote of those members present and voting. But what is some Democratic member isn’t present?
Traditionally, out of respect, it was a policy that members would be given 24 hours’ notice before an override vote would be taken. Moore changed those rules back in January and now the Speaker can put an item on the floor for a vote whenever he chooses. This means that if one or more Democrats should be sick, in the rest room, or otherwise not on the House floor Moore can and likely will call for a vote. A power play?
It continues. Republicans are upset that local governments in our largest counties are electing more Democrats than Republicans, so they have decided to change the way Wake County Commissioners are elected - without even consulting them. Currently, each commissioner is voted on by all the voters in the county, but a recently introduced bill would require that Wake be divided into districts and commissioners elected only by voters in that district. Furthermore, these elections will be non-partisan. A Wake Democratic representative asked other members, “If we vote for our county commissioners to be nonpartisan, what’s to say that this won’t happen in your county?” The GOP legislator sponsoring the bill says its intent is to ensure voters have “confidence” in the system. But nobody’s claiming voters don’t have confidence. Another Democrat added, “If that’s the case, why wouldn’t the (races for) judges and the legislators coming from Wake County also be nonpartisan?” Indeed. Why not in all counties?
Here’s another power grab. This legislature is discussing the elimination of the Governor’s power to appoint vacancies in state courts or the Council of State, appointments usually made in consultation with the bar, the party of the incumbent and others. They already passed a law limiting the power of the Governor to declare states of emergency during hurricanes, ice storms or health scares.
All these examples prove that those who have power always want more of it. But here’s a corollary axiom: “Be careful of the fingers you step on as you go up the ladder. They may be connected to the rear end you have to kiss on your way down.”